Under the Microscope
Welcome to “Under the Microscope,” Killer Nashville’s very own exclusive Forensics Corner. We will unearth, demystify, and bring you interesting, factual information about the world of forensics from experts in various fields. From dead bodies, to suspicious substances, to computers with a mind of their own, this column will explore the macabre, gory, and unexplainable with the truth in scientific terms for writers to use at their will.
There are about 85,000 reported persons missing in the United States – many of them children – and it is up to members of the forensic community such as Dr. Mike Tabor to attempt to identify them.
Mike has been a veteran of the Killer Nashville Writers’ Conference, sharing his knowledge of forensic dentistry with the goal of identifying individuals through teeth.
Finding Victims Through Odontology
By Mike Tabor, DDS, DABFO
Joe Craig, one of TBI’s leading detectives looked curiously over my shoulder. I stared intently at Chloie’s dental x-ray, then at Gage’s. My brow wrinkled as I gazed back at each child’s photo. This never gets any easier. It seems like I know these kids and I’ve never met them. In thirty years of putting names with dead bodies for the Tennessee State Medical Examiner’s Office, it’s the missing children that really get to your heart. Thousands of families go to sleep each night not knowing whether their son or daughter is dead or alive. Sometimes it’s a runaway, sometimes a marital custody abduction, but all too often it is a child vanishing in the middle of the night. Just like Gage and Chloie.
On September 23, 2012, the home that Gage, 7 and Chloie, 9, shared with their grandparents, Molli and Leon McClaran between Murfreesboro and Shelbyville, Tennessee, went up in flames. Tragically, both grandparents perished in the fire, and for a while, it was presumed the children died there as well. After days of searching by forensic/arson experts, only the grandparents’ remains were located. Forensic anthropologists sifted in vain, through each piece of burned debris to locate the children. We x-rayed every fragment that even resembled a pediatric bone or tooth, but no other human tissue was discovered. The children had apparently just vanished.
What originally was thought to be a house fire killing four people turned into two confirmed adult fatalities and two missing children with many questions unanswered. Over two years later, it still remains a cold case with nothing further known about the children’s whereabouts or condition.
There are about 85,000 reported persons missing in the United States today. Nearly half are children. There are two national databases (NCIC for law enforcement and NAMUS for the general public) whose mission is to match missing person’s records with the John and Jane Does at medical examiner’s offices and morgues around the country. Between, 4,000-5,000 bodies are buried anonymously annually, their identity never discovered. The goal of the forensic community is to reduce this number and bring closure to suffering families.
Identification of these bodies is accomplished by fingerprints, DNA, or dental radiographic comparison. DNA has quickly replaced fingerprints as the gold standard in forensic identification. But sometimes the evidence has decomposed or deteriorated and the DNA is not readable. The fillings or restorations in human teeth are virtually impervious to environmental elements.
Before the advent of NAMUS, only law enforcement officials had access to the database which is so powerful in tracking down missing persons. With the increasing popularity of forensic sciences, NAMUS now provides an easy access for the lay public to become directly involved in helping solve mysteries.
There are many characteristics that can be logged into the database that could help with the identification process. Hair color, height and weight, as well as tattoos and dental record details are among bits of information that law enforcement, lay public, or medical examiner’s offices can add to this database.
Since teeth are the most durable substance in the human body, they are valuable tools in identifying these bodies that would otherwise forever remain a mystery. The clues these teeth hold are virtually indestructible, which makes forensic odontology one of the most reliable forms of human identification in the field of forensic science. With 32 permanent teeth, each containing five surfaces, the number of mathematical combinations for ID purposes is greater than the total number of people that have ever lived on our planet.
Before the introduction of NAMUS, many missing persons had not even been entered into either one of the national databases. An incompletely populated database will, of course, oftentimes lead to a dead-end street with the identification process. It is hoped that with the ever-increasing popularity of forensic sciences on national television will help reduce the number of missing or unidentified persons.
The University of Tennessee, Graduate School of Medicine, located at University Medical Center in Knoxville, Tennessee, is launching the first postgraduate Master of Science degree in forensic odontology and human identification in the United States. It is anticipated that with programs like this pilot, more individuals throughout our country and the forensic world will continue to develop a more thorough presence in the field of forensic identification.
Dr. Bill Bass, one of the founding fathers of forensic anthropology and founder of the world’s first Body Farm is one of the faculty members in this new venture. The program will encompass topics like human bite mark analysis, with guest lecturer Miami/Dade County forensic odontologist, Dr. Richard Souviron, who testified in the world famous Ted Bundy trial.
Several of the faculty, like Dr. Dick Weems from UAB College of Dentistry, have extensive experience with mass disasters such as the World Trade Center attack on 9-11-2001, to the tragedies of Hurricane Katrina. Attendees will actually experience a “hands on” section simulating a mass disaster and missing persons identification.
It is hoped that with ever increasing public awareness about the number of cases like Gage and Chloie, the long and difficult journey of helping to find missing children might someday come to an end.
For more information about these programs contact the course director Dr. Murray Marks at firstname.lastname@example.org.
With a freshly earned DDS in 1973, Dr. Mike Tabor left Carson-Newman College and The University of Tennessee College of Dentistry, and began his career as a family dentist. Ten years later, his career took a unique turn and he found himself in the highly specialized field of forensic dentistry. As one of only a handful of forensic dentists in the United States, Dr. Tabor became a highly sought after expert in this field, performing identifications and examinations on homicide victims, as well as aiding police departments, investigators and medical examiners all over the country in the prosecution of thousands of crimes. He has served as the president of the Tennessee State Board of Dental Examiners, and is currently the Chief Forensic Dentist for The State of Tennessee Office of the Medical Examiner. His first novel Walk Of Death was released in 2013. www.drmiketabor.com
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